Brand Voice Will Take on an Entirely New Meaning Very Soon
When I see people hunched over their phones, eyes fixed on screens, I think of the evolutionary chart that hung in biology class. The chart depicted a chronology of human ancestors, each one slightly more upright than their predecessor, until finally, we arrived at modern human, standing tall, except for when he or she is looking at their mobile phone, which is pretty much all the time these days. We look down because mobile devices are how we interface, find food, navigate and purchase life’s essentials. We adapted to the mobile disruption quickly, because as Charles Darwin put it, “Intelligence is based on how efficient a species [is] at doing the things they need to survive.”
Mobile isn’t the end of the revolutionary line, however. According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the next decade will be about artificial intelligence (AI), which means, among other things, that the newest human on the evolutionary chart will finally be able to look up from their phone and start speaking with technology.
Voice technology can trace its roots to the 1950s, when scientists at Bell Labs created “Audrey,” a system that recognized digits spoken by a single voice. Unlike Siri or Alexa, Audrey didn’t have the benefit of technologies like AI, deep learning and natural language processing, nor did it have the ability to leverage other powerful technologies like image recognition. However, in thinking about Audrey, we see that our voice journey has gone from the experimental phase to novelty to a new paradigm. Already, human behavior is changing fast. According to The Economist, Siri handles more than 2 billion commands a week, and 20 percent of Google searches on Android-powered handsets in the U.S. alone are performed via voice. But like any conversation, the voice disruption won’t be one-sided.
For as long as I can recall, marketers have said they wanted to develop their “brand voice.” That sentiment takes on new meaning in a voice-disrupted world, where engagement is a conversation, not a series of clicks. Today, retailers think in terms of mining social media conversations, inbound text messages, or even call center AI and the impact bots can have on this type of interaction. Yet the real conversation — one where the retailer’s voice has the intelligence to adapt to a customer’s tone and learn from previous interactions — is just around the corner.
Few retailers are ready for that revolution. Only 8.5 percent of sales in the $22 trillion global retail market were made online in 2017, according to YCharts. The internet hasn’t yet replaced the physical store, and the interactions that lead up to a sale — shopping, browsing, showrooming — all have a dependency on digital. The trend away from brick-and-mortar is a slow one, and I believe mobile and voice will accelerate that larger disruption and move from Siri and Alexa novelty of talking to a machine to utilitarian values that help you manage yourself.
We can already glimpse the future. Coining the term “conversational commerce,” former Google and Uber product guru Chris Messina wrote about the intersection of messaging apps and shopping. The basic idea, Messina wrote, “is about delivering convenience, personalization and decision support while people are on the go, with only partial attention to spare.” In other words, Alexa, buy milk.
Already, Alexa can fill that order, but it’s a somewhat clunky experience. That might give slow-adapting retailers reason for relief, but it shouldn’t. Companies like Amazon.com are already positioned to exploit the voice disruption because voice commands decrease the influence of product image and web interface in the buying decision. At the same time, voice plays to Amazon’s strength by increasing the weight of factors such as prior purchase history, price and product availability because few customers want to engage in protracted conversations with a smart, but boring, AI clerk. As Alexa becomes the preferred AI platform, products available and distributed via Amazon’s platform will likely hold an advantage for Alexa users. This, in turn, will likely bring more retailers to Amazon’s platform.
Amazon won’t be the only winner of the voice disruption race. Retailers that focus on the dramatic changes to consumer behavior brought about by voice have a tremendous opportunity. One of those changes may be who controls the household wallet. Traditionally, retailers have focused on women because women tend to do the shopping and are the big influencer on most daily household purchases. Of course, gender roles are changing and U.S. marriage rates are in decline. Those larger social trends already have a long-term impact on retail because, eventually, even bachelor’s go shopping. Men may have an outsized influence on voice-powered commerce because early adopters skew male; little wonder that the default voices for Siri and Alexa are female.
The voice disruption is clearly underway. It will gain speed thanks to broader social, commercial and technological trends. The question is, what are retailers planning to tell their customers? And in what voice?
Related story: Voice: The Next Frontier of the Retail Digital Experience
Baker is a MediaPost “Email Insider” columnist and former “Email Insider” Summit Chairman and program director, and his works have also been published in iMedia Connection, Internet Retailer, Adweek, Direct Marketing News and ClickZ. Additionally, he has spoken at leading industry conferences including Adtech, OMMA, DMA, Shop.org and LeadsCon.